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While eating lunch in Uganda on Sunday, October 19th, a tall, well-built man sat down two seats away from me wearing a yellow t-shirt with a  block M and the words “go blue” in Polish.  I didn’t think it would affect my New Years plans.  At the time, I just told him the shirt was ugly, and he asked if I went to Ohio State.  Now, nine weeks later, I’m sitting in Amsterdam waiting for him, and we’ll be in Krakow tonight.

It’s around 6 in the morning and dawn won’t appear here for another two and a half hours, so I’m sitting in the dark using my nervous energy to write, because if there’s a “right book” for a time like this, I don’t have it.  I could repack the bag I’m taking to Poland a few times and get a shower, but that won’t make him arrive any faster.

Back in October, we had three days at a conference to get to know each other.  Being young teachers on the international scene, we actually went to training sessions that affected us rather than just going off on our own.  Hubert would probably suggest that this was further evidence of how similar we are.  Gradie would accuse me of not being a rainmaker.  In any case, we ate lunches together and rode buses together and went out at night together, but the time spent together stopped there.  On the last night there was dinner and dancing.  I sat at a table with my colleagues and he sat at a different table with his.  After dinner, each guest received a small brown envelope that contained either the number corresponding to a door prize or a nasty note about being a loser.  I had won nothing, but I had acquired an idea.  On the back of my slip, I wrote “you won the girl at table 17”, placed it back in the envelope, and had Hubert deliver it.

When he still hadn’t come by an hour later, Hubert passed him at the bar.  “Why are you out here?” Hubert asked him.  “The note was from her.”  With that he put his drink down, and the rest of the night began.  We danced, we made fun of dancers, we went up to the top floor of the hotel, we walked out on the roof.  He asked me what I meant by “you won” and I told him just the dancing.  The era of my life when I would reply with something like “my heart” are well behind me.  Back downstairs, we each went home our separate ways – first to our distinct hotels and then to our new African countries of residence.

When I returned to Addis two things happened.  First, my life began to accelerate.  I’d moved into a new and lovely house, I made more friends, the busiest part of the cross country season arrived, and the rain stopped leaving the country warm and green after several cold and rainy months.  Second, I began email correspondence with the man who’d “won me [over]” in Kampala.  Initially, I didn’t respond to his first two messages, because I hadn’t had internet access during my gorilla safari.  When I did reply to his query “did I lose the girl at table 17”, I  assured him that although I’m not one to award one-night stands or random hookups, he definitely earned some future shared adventure time.  Three weeks after we’d met, we were making use of our “geographical assests” and arranging to meet in Amsterdam.

The planning didn’t stop there though.  He went on to book us tickets to a mystery destination, and slowly fed me clues about the unknown cities through rhymed four-line clues.  Once I learned that we’d be spending New Years in Krakow, our lives got even busier and communication trailed off. On the countdown chart next to my bed, the numbers were steadily crossed off until three nights and two days before we were to meet, I boarded a plane to Amsterdam.  Now, we’re mere hours away from our reunion.   I’m nervous about the silliest things.  Did I pack cute enough clothes? (It was hard in the warmth of Addis to pull out clothes from my wardrobe that would protect me from the real winter cold while still looking attractive.)  Does his facebook status “is sad to leave his family and friends…” equate to disappoint that he made plans with me?  (Alix assures me that it’s not the case.)  In the next twelve hours, the life of the “girl at table 17” will have changed irreversibly as the four-day first date ensues, and two Americans from rival universities who now live in different African nations will have to decide whether traveling around Northern Europe together was a wonderful decision or an awful one.

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Being Ballsy

Last week I posted a panic-inducing blog on the website of my alter-ego – the proper teacher girl who lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and allows her entire family and network of friends to know, what they believe to be, the intimate secrets of her life abroad.  In the blog I described my walk home from school at dusk.  When I left school, it was not dusk.  When I arrived home, it was decidedly dusky.  This caused a great deal of concern, if not consternation, among my family back in the states.  My father described it as dealing with having a child in Iraq after he fielded calls from my grandmother about my safety.

The point of the blog was really to point out that in a relatively safe city, I was only really afraid of the beating I would get from my own conscience as I ignored people living in extreme poverty as part of my pedestrian commute.  From the walk-at-dusk expedition, I gained some key insights into the practical side of dealing with the half hour walk from my home to my school campus.  First, on my Sunday afternoon walk to campus, I wore my iPod touch.  That way I could ignore guys who yelled “farangi” or anything else and walk all the more confidently.  I’m significantly taller than the vast majority of Ethiopians and, if need be, I could “take ‘em”.  When I came across two women who were both elderly and desperately poor, I had some spare change ready in the outside pocket of my bag to give them (although I don’t think I divided it equally between them).   Then, after my weekly Sunday potluck dinner and screening of The Wire at J & B’s, I decided to walk home.  It was before 10:00, and a nearly full moon clearly illuminated my travels when the streetlights were insufficient.  Wearing my ripped jeans and a brown hoodie (as opposed to Nike products or my white sweatshirt), I walked through the night without a single incident.

Now that I’m feeling really ballsy about walking around my corner of Addis, I find the worries of my family stateside to be incredibly entertaining.  How terrified would they have been if they read regularly about the late night walks I used to take through Manhattan and across Central Park?  Here no one but the federal police are allowed to carry guns, there’s no history of abductions, and Simon and Garfunkel don’t have a famous song about how it’s “where they say you should not wander after dark.”

Life Cycles

I’m trying to find a pattern in my life.  I have a rough sense of the trajectory that got me to Addis Ababa, but now I’m trying to find the secret to emotional survival here.  Today I played indoor soccer, and tomorrow is my first day of cross-country practice.  Part of me thinks that I’m reverting to high school.

Just like in high school, I have to wait for my friends to drive me places. I’m not interested in going out to bars or having a few beers.  I’m focused on math, books, and cross-country without watching much television, spending much money, or doing a lot of cultural things.  I might even start playing the flute again, and someone else prepares my meals.  I wonder how far I’ve gone back in time – a decade? More?

As I was playing indoor soccer today, I began to wonder if my move to Addis ran parallel to my move to rural Ohio in the first place.  Soccer was a sport I played in fourth grade, probably the first organized athletic team I was on besides swimming.  Would I have to go through as many awkward phases?  When would I catch up to being the woman I’d become in Manhattan? 

Then I remembered the first time that I watched indoor soccer.  I went to a game in Columbus to cheer for a graduate student I was dating.  I sat on the sidelines and tried to determine if there was a strategy and exactly what the rules were.  I followed all the rules for good girlfriends and cheered at all the right times.  It would be another year before I would play one quarter of intramural outdoor soccer with Yosh and Nick and ED, earning a black eye with my hockey-style defense and no helmet.

Now, five years later, I’m playing pick-up indoor soccer in Addis.  There’s a lot about life here that reflects an earlier point in my life, but I have to remind myself that now I’m doing the coaching, I’m doing the teaching, and I’m the one playing soccer – not avoiding the ball like a fourth grade girl, not cheering like a good girlfriend, not putting my face in front of the ball, but showing that this woman is ready for a new adventure and a new chapter in life.  

karmic book discovery

Sometimes I’m especially glad that I’m don’t teach reading, because if I had to help kids pick out books I’d be hard pressed to give them good advice.  Books tend to come to me through a karmic pipeline of just-right-ness.  Movies, music, and even news reports also try to travel on this special magnetic frequency, but they aren’t always as successful.  Books, on the other hand, arrive in my life as if by magic.  The perfect book for me always arrives at the perfect time whether it’s crawled through international booksellers, back corners of used bookstores, a friend’s shelf, a random email, or a constant reappearing in my life.  Sometimes books come to me out of my own collection.  The majority of the books I read are good.  Somewhere there is a force field that keeps junky books out and lets amazing ones in. 

Then there are those books (and movies and songs) that are reflections of some part of you that you can’t express.  You find them and it’s like you picked up a piece of you that you lost along the way without realizing it.  With Honors and Amelie are my two favorite movies because they are that for me.  Haruki Murkami’s books have traveled across the karmic literary pipeline to consistently arrive at the right time for me.  The author himself was recommended to me a by an only-child ex-boyfriend who managed a bar, and though he’d never read South of the Border, West of the Sun, it dealt with all three of those character points (only-child, past relationships, and bar owner/manager).  It was surreal – like reading about Tuesday, October 22nd on Tuesday, October 22nd. 

Anyways, Haruki Murakami wrote a memoir and I found out about it the day it came out, four days before I flew to Africa.  Had it come out a week later, I never would have heard about it much less gotten a copy in Ethiopia.  Thanks to my magnetic book karma, I had it in my bag as I flew to Africa.  While I recognize that you may have not read seven other books by Murakami, may quite possibly think that running a marathon is ridiculous, and may not share his concerns about approaching 60, I highly recommend it.  So if you’re going to the beach before the end of the summer and need something light enough for the beach but heavy enough to keep your mind humming softly, I’m recommending What I Talk about When I Talk about Running.

When I stumbled half awake out of the van at 4:30 am, local time, and took in my ground floor apartment, I almost cried.  One whole wall seemed to be made entirely of doors and glass with no windows anywhere.  The orange glare of the lights in the courtyard emanated depressingly into every glass pane and glowed through the curtains.  The brown leather sofa set and the mismatched bedroom furniture all arranged at right angles in rooms just slightly too large for them on brown tiled floors only made it worse.  I curled up on the right hand corner of the bed, under the heinous red fleece blanket with a  large pink rose in the center, and allowed myself a single tear.

I dreamt all night of ways to escape the horrible apartment which only looked worse as the night progressed.  When I woke around 11, it didn’t feel any better and it was full of people.  I rode back to the airport and then through the school choking back tears and trying to think of positive things about Ethiopia.  My face must have looked petrified for hours as I tried to put on a positive face, but I dreaded returning to the awful place I would have to call “home”.  Over lunch with my new bosses and a new friend, I began to soften into feeling better, but I continued to work amidst the lush green of the school’s campus.

Eventually, it was time to return – to inspect the furniture and appliances and items on loan with two school staff members.  As I began to unpack and shower with the daylight streaming in and the realization that only four other teachers and their housekeepers might ever pass my windows, I slowly felt better.  Once I blocked two of the three doors with furniture, I felt less like I was living in a row of shops.  Then, after dinner out with new friends, I began to conquer the long living/dining room wall opposite the windows.  The paint, almost imperceptibly off white but leaning towards brown and on the shiny side was conquered by two alternating rows of square postcards that once adorned the long wall in my first New York apartment.  With splashes of color and texture and international flare, my apartment escaped from dreariness and became a place to live.   Looking around me, I knew that my need to alter unpleasant spaces with color and art was integral to my avoidance of military academies and the peace corps.   After rotating my bed to make a 45° with two adjacent walls and feeling like my bedroom was full, I am ready to sleep in peace.

really going?

In two weeks, I’ll be living in an apartment in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  Looking around my current apartment it’s clear that something is happening.  I have never sorted and organized and tossed and saved so much at a time.  Each item in my apartment must be handled to ensure that nothing unnecessary goes.  But what’s unnecessary?

I have my business visa for 730 days and multiple entries.  I have a new mac with an ipod touch and a printer.  I have a yellow fever vaccination.  I have already seen some people for the last time this year — in a creepy way that is unlike death but full of termination.  

Although my days are filled with these efforts to prepare for my departure, I continue to eat and drink and go out with friends which reminds me that this time is full of life and it’s a great chance to do more with mine.  Everyone asks me if I’m excited, but this is so predetermined, so intentional that I feel more like I’m just flowing.  My smile comes easily and I feel full of purpose, but for now my purpose is only packing and taking care of the details, like the visa and mac and shots.  

In six days a shipping container will come for my things and take them off to the port and across the ocean.  In ten days I’ll fly over continents and ocean to a life I can’t even begin to imagine.   As I spend my day surrounded by unpacked boxes and the ticket stubbed relics of my life in New York, a little voice keeps asking “am I really going?”

protect a tricycle

I have long been perplexed by the selection of advertising on the fringes of webpages.  Some of it seems to reflect my interests with eerie accuracy. Yes, I am a buckeye.  Yes, I think that boys are cute.   Other ads are more bizarre.  What have I done to suggest I want to buy jewelry based on the L-Word? (Does it know my roommate is renting it on Netflix?)  Why does it think I want to lose 25 pounds?  (Does it think that’s why I ran a marathon?)

Today, while reading an old NYTimes article on laws of physics, I am being recruited from the fringes to join the US Border Patrol.  In a flashing ad, I am shown men splashing through the water on horseback who apparently do the protecting.  (In an effort to show diversity, there might be a woman out in front of the six men.)  Then I am told that they are protecting a picture of a tricycle pedaled by a pair of toddlers legs with a proportionately large American flag affixed on the back of it.  Given our lengthy Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts along with our long-standing peace with our two neighboring nations, I’m not sure what I’m being encouraged to sign-up for — prejudice? xenophobia?  patriotic pre-school teaching?  horseback riding?  parades?  fear?  ignorance?   I don’t think I’ll join.